Thursday, October 21, 2004

There are two ways to produce an automobile engine: the mass-produced way and the custom, hand-built way. They are both important to consumers. It just depends on the kind of consumer. Recently, I had a chance to find out that building an engine is not as simple as it sounds, but more about that later.

In a traditional engine plant, the engine moves down a conveyor and different workers add different parts as each engine passes. The plants that produce engines in such a manner must produce large numbers (500,000 or 600,000) of one engine to remain profitable and keep the engines affordable.

Then there is the “boutique” method, in which one person builds a high-performance engine from start to finish. Currently, the manufacturer best known for that practice is AMG, which builds high-performance engines for Mercedes’ sportiest vehicles and wealthier, more demanding consumers.

Beginning in spring 2005, that is the plan for General Motors’ new Performance Build Center in the Detroit suburb of Wixom, Mich., as the corporation begins to hand-build high-performance specialty engines for low-volume, premium vehicles. GM says the maximum capacity of the Performance Build Center is about 15,000 engines a year. But because of its small size of about 100,000 square feet and relatively small investment of roughly $10 million, it can make a profit.

The first engine to be produced using this approach will be the LS7 V-8 going into the 2006 model Corvette Z06, the highest-performance Corvette. Chevrolet officials haven’t provided any details on the LS7 yet, but the speculation is that it will produce about 500 horsepower, which is 100 more than the standard engine in the 2005 Corvette.



When engine building begins, each of the approximately 60 employees will start with a engine block and then add components, rolling the engine from station to station. This operation marks a different manufacturing emphasis, making engines that appeal to image and prestige and to people who can appreciate one craftsman working on one special engine.

In recent months, GM held the preview of its full line of vehicles in the new facility and gave automotive reporters an opportunity to build an engine, under the tutelage of experienced engine builders from its Glendale Complex in St. Catharine, Ontario.

The engine we built was the “LS2,” the fourth-generation of the Corvette small-block V-8 known as the LS1. The redesigned “LS2” is a 6.0-liter V-8 and debuts in the 2005 Chevrolet SSR and 2005 base Corvette.

It starts with the guys from St. Catharine’s handing me a piston that I place into the bore. Then they hand me what looks like a mallet and say, “Give it a whack.” I do. It doesn’t go in.

Their advice: “Get it more in line with the bore and try to do it in one sweeping movement; it takes a little bit of a knack.” One more whack and the piston is in place. Then they have me torque down the rod cap. My first kudos come next. “You just put a piston in an engine.” Cool.

Next, on go the windage tray, oil pickup tube, and oil pan assembly. Then I’m torquing down more fasteners. I put on the roller lifters, head bolts, pushrods, rocker arms, rocker cover, coil pack, exhaust manifold. I like using the electric speed wrench, and I find this whole process similar to putting together a news article. You build it one word at a time and then screw together the paragraphs.

I see the possibility of a new career. Until, that is, I’m told they think it will take just two hours to put the new “niche” engines together. At the rate I’m going General Motors would go broke making this engine — not to mention the quality issues.

Next comes the dipstick tube assembly — finally something I recognize.

Of course, there is the possibility that “dipstick” assembly is what my tutors consider my efforts.

More instructions follow: “That goes in here, rotate that around, line it up with here and put this fastener in.”

Huh?

After that I’m told, “Put the spark plugs in here. This will give you good practice for when you change the spark plugs on your car.”

Right.

A few more parts and we are done. “You’ve just built a Corvette and SSR engine,” the guys from St. Catharine’s say. I hope car enthusiasts appreciate my decision not to build engines for a living. I am sure GM does.

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